37 Years Ago, The Best Paul Reubens Movie Was This Tragically Underrated Sci-Fi Masterpiece
If you forgot the voice of Pee-wee dominated this movie, that was part of the plan.
The biggest name in the delightful 1986 science fiction fantasy cult classic Flight of the Navigator does not appear in the opening credits. And his name doesn’t doesn’t appear in the end credits either. That’s right, arguably the co-star of this Disney flick, the recently departed Paul Reubens, was not credited at all for his work on the movie. But why? Turns out there’s a great reason, and that revelation should motivate you to revisit this delightful film, as it's not only an underrated sci-fi family movie but also, one of the best performances by Reubens, ever.
Back in 1986, audiences at the time might not have known it, but this Disney movie had a hotter performer than even WKRP in Cincinnati’s resident cool dude Howard Hesseman as a NASA scientist and a young, pre-stardom Sarah Jessica Parker as a NASA intern who strikes up a disconcertingly flirtatious relationship with the film’s twelve-year-old hero David Scott Freeman (Joey Kramer). So, who was this bigger star? Well, none other than Paul Reubens signed on to provide the voice of Max, the chatty alien spaceship that takes David on the trip of a lifetime. And, it turns out, Reubens didn’t want his name anywhere on the movie because he wanted audiences to be utterly surprised by his presence.
Reubens chose the pseudonym “Paul Maul” rather than let Disney promote the film on the basis of his central, albeit offscreen role. In that respect, it was the antithesis of the following year’s Back to the Beach, where Reubens had a cameo as Pee-wee Herman yet featured very prominently in the advertising.
But, for movie-obsessed, ten-year-old latchkey kids like me, I was the ideal audience member for Flight of the Navigator. At the time of its release, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was my all-time favorite film, and it only had come out the year before, in 1985. Flight of the Navigator is also part of a beloved wave of fantasy and science fiction movies that flourished in the aftermath of Steven Spielberg’s E.T about kids d teenagers who go on fantastical adventures involving time travel, pirate treasures, space aliens, and adorable creatures of all stripes.
Steven Spielberg was the king of this beloved wave of hits because he directed E.T. but also because he produced or executive produced 1983’s Poltergeist, 1984’s Gremlins, 1985’s Back to the Future, 1986’s The Goonies and 1987’s Batteries Not Included. So, Spielberg’s Reagan-era classics established a sturdy template for movies like Flight of the Navigator to follow but, when you rewatch it now, you’ll notice that the movie is darker and grimmer even by the standards of a 1980s kid’s film. It also has a surprising amount of profanity, including at least one ableist slur that was very popular in the 1980s. (You’ll know it when you hear it.)
That said, all great children’s movies are at least mildly traumatizing on some level, right? And Flight of the Navigator certainly qualifies. It doesn’t just benefit from the manic comic energy of Paul Reubens at the peak of his popularity and brilliance; it needs it to avoid being a stone-cold bummer.
Flight of the Navigator opens on Independence Day 1978. David is a happy twelve-year-old boy enjoying an idyllic Florida existence with his younger brother Jeff (Albie Whitaker) and parents Bill (Cliff De Young) and Helen (Veronica Cartwright). That all changes when David’s brother scares him and he loses consciousness after falling in the forest. When he awakes eight years have passed and everybody and everything in the world is different except for him. David hasn’t aged a day and is still wearing the same clothes as when he went missing. When David goes to what he thinks is his home he finds strangers rather than his family. Yes, that’s right, Flight of the Navigator features an ‘80s kid who is really a ‘70s kid.
When David does reconnect with his mom and dad they are incredibly relieved. They’ve spent the last eight years thinking that their son had suffered horribly or was gone forever. But they’re also confused. Why hasn’t their child aged? What happened to him? Where has he been for close to a decade?
Flight of the Navigator does not downplay the nightmarishness of this scenario. As a parent, it’s hard to imagine a fate worse than having a child disappear for long years without any idea where they might be or what might have happened to them. Cramer powerfully conveys the helplessness, despair, and all-consuming confusion that would come with this unique and unfortunate predicament. The lead actor thankfully lacks the grating precociousness and mannered cuteness that characterizes so much child acting.
NASA becomes fascinated by David’s case and separates him from his family so that they can study him. It’s a predictably sinister process that the confused young man escapes when he slips back onboard a spaceship piloted by robotic commander Trimaxion Drone Ship (Reubens). The spaceship needs information it has implanted in David’s brain in order to return home. The spaceship’s mission is to borrow creatures from various planets so that it can study them before returning them to their homes.
That means that there are all manner of adorable, Gizmo-like creatures onboard the ship for David to bond with and the audience to coo over. Like The Last Starfighter — another beloved example of the Spielbergian 1980s kids science fiction film — Flight of the Navigator extensively uses a then-novel technique known as Computer Generated Imagery to make the most of its modest budget. CGI does not enjoy a great reputation but at the very beginning of its existence, there was something at once magical and homemade about the new technology. It was at once retro and futuristic.
The charming, inventive, and ground-breaking CGI of Flight of the Navigator today looks like history’s vision of the future. It consequently has a time-warp quality while still feeling very much like a product of its time. Trimaxion Drone Ship initially talks in an appropriately formal, robotic fashion but it isn’t long until it starts talking like Pee-wee Herman.
Reubens might have wanted his contributions to Flight of the Navigator to be a surprise but when the spaceship with pizazz does the patented manic laugh of Reubens’ signature character, a joyful “Ha ha!” it’s impossible to mistake it for anything other than the work of the man who gave the world Pee-wee Herman.
Like what Robin Williams would do in Aladdin, Reubens indulges in a stream-of-consciousness ramble full of pop culture references and ad-libbed goofiness. Flight of the Navigator was ahead of its time in having its most important performance come from someone who never appears onscreen. Flight of the Navigator did not necessarily invent the celebrity voiceover but it marked a crucial stage in its development, just as it marked a crucial stage in the development of CGI.
At its rapturous best Flight of the Navigator realizes the eternal human aspiration to fly on a visceral cinematic level. The film more than makes up for the grimness of its waking nightmare of the first half with a third act that finds David and his new best buddy Max soaring across the earth and into outer space and taking us all along for the ride. The spaceship is a marvel of modern set design, a shimmering, glittering metallic mass of shiny silver populated by impossibly cute little guys from across the universe and a child overjoyed to find himself serving as the navigator for a genuine, bona fide UFO.
Thanks to Reubens’ flashy voice work, Joey Cramer’s fine lead performance and special effects that are as dazzling as they are groundbreaking Flight of the Navigator is one of the best and most enduring products of the Spielbergian kiddie science fiction epics, even though Spielberg himself had nothing to do with it. When people list all the ‘80s flicks that Stranger Things cribbed from, Flight of the Navigator is never high enough on the list. It might not reach the giddy heights of Gremlins, Poltergeist, or Back to the Future, but it occupies a place of pride in the movement’s second tier along with other underrated cult finds like The Explorers and the aforementioned The Last Starfighter.
The film did well at the box office and with critics but was not a raging success on either front. The movie might have done better commercially if it was able to play up Reubens’ performance as Max. Flight of the Navigator hit theaters the year after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure turned Pee-Wee into a movie star and debuted a month before Pee-wee’s Playhouse debuted, making Reubens’ irresistible man-child a hit in multiple mediums.
The innovative science-fiction film from Grease director Randal Kleiser enjoys a sizable and loyal cult following and has inspired the usual talk of remakes and reboots but there’s something special about letting something Flight of the Navigator just be a movie and not a franchise. Reubens must have enjoyed working on Flight of the Navigator because Kleiser ended up directing 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee. That gave Big Top Pee-wee the dubious distinction of being a disappointing follow-up to both Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Flight of the Navigator.
Thankfully Flight of the Navigator is available on Disney+ so it can thrill an entire new generation of children along with their nostalgic Gen-X parents. It may not be Paul Reuben’s most famous movie, but if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, it’s certainly worth another look. This time, maybe with your kids.